I expected my conversation with new Baylor head coach Dave Aranda to be deep and thoughtful. I didn't expect it to be this deep and thoughtful.
What I had planned to be largely a talk about football turned mostly into a talk about grief and the finding strength in being vulnerable with the people around you.
Oh, and we also got some great insight into what made the 2019 LSU offense so deadly, and how that changed Aranda's thoughts both in constructing an offense and how he calls plays on defense.
This conversation was edited for clarity and length. Full disclosure: It was also cut short because my kids were screaming bloody murder as we taped and I was the only parent home at the time #quarantineproblems.
FootballScoop: I read that you found your self quarantined in Louisiana. Are you still there or have you had a chance to make it back to Waco yet?
Aranda: I'm in Louisiana right now.
FootballScoop: As a new head coach, how are you building relationships with your guys through this time?
Aranda: The situation we're in, having friends and people that I know of that have been sick, knowing the effects there and how horrible the virus is, you're watching the news, the economy, all the struggles there, there's a quite a few things that are bad that are happening right now. In that light, though, one of the positives is the world slows down enough to really make a deep connection with people and to empathize with people, to open up your heart to folks, I think. That time is precious. I look back at when I was just first hired, we would have meetings, I'd get out of meetings and get to the office, people would stop by, visiting with them. It sure was an exercise in being present in each of the conversations you had, as fast as everything was moving back then.
Now, with everything slowed down, there's much more of an inclination for people to sit down with you, so to speak, over the phone or through Zoom and really take the time to connect. That's a positive coming out of this time, if there is one. We've been doing that, whether it's been talking to the players -- I'm working through our players for the second time, calling however many guys a day. We have our installs on Tuesday and Thursday, 20 minute special teams followed by a 40-minute position group. On Wednesday I have my team meeting, and then on Friday we have our team broken up and mixed-and-matched by position with different position coaches, so we'll have the quarterback coach meet with the D-linemen and the safeties coach meet with the running backs. One of the challenges in this is that you lose the in-between time. You can recreate the meeting time and the focal point; so much of it is the walk to the meeting, the bump in the hallway, the happenstance communication that a lot of times can be just as meaningful. We get everybody on Zoom in the 8 o'clock hour and we talk about, "Hey, this is me, this is my family. This is how the virus has affected us. This is what my routine is. I'm hoping to get better at this or that. Really kind of sharing that way."
I know had talked to the team, when I was growing up I was not really big on sharing, especially emotional stuff. Automatically for me it would be, "Why would I tell people my stuff when they've already got their stuff? No one cares about hearing about how I feel." I've had to mature and learn and value that people have got great hearts and they're looking for the best for others. When things are tough, leaning on people is a strength. Our talks have been centered that way. I think all that is best modeled by the coaches and taken on by the players. I think the guys enjoy seeing each other and letting whatever's in, out.
I want to say about a fourth of our team has been affected, where people have gotten sick, gone to the hospital, needed ventilators. Maybe a fourth of the team is that way. There is a fair amount where this has equated to, I'm in the house and I'm bored. There's such a wide spectrum of what their intake of all this is. In the middle there is identity. Say there's school in session, the campus is open -- I'm walking around with my school sweatshirt on. This is me, man. This is what I do, this has been my whole life. Now you're in a house not being able to be that guy, necessarily. Now there's a new role in how you're dealing with that and not seeing your friends. There's levels of that, from knowing people that have passed to "Why am I in this house forever?" I think the ability be there for your team, to be empathetic and to open up to them, to make it known that it's okay to open up and to listen, I think, is really, really key.
FootballScoop: How have you noticed that allowing themselves to be vulnerable has helped your guys?
Aranda: I think it allows them to be themselves and they don't have to protect when they have conversations with you and the staff. For me, I think about family. If I'm with my family, my immediate family, I'm probably going to be a different person than most people think I am. I think most people are that way. I think you're comfortable with who you're comfortable with. The thought is, for our team this is a family. I want to be there for them and it's important for them to know they can be themselves and we can accept them as such. Always pushing for the best for that particular young man but to accept them for where they're at, no judgments. That is what you get on the other end of it.
FootballScoop: What was the change for you that allowed you to accept that you needed help from other people sometimes?
Aranda: One was probably accepting Christ in my life. Two was seeing the model of people I had seen as role models. A lot of these guys were coaches. I think of Jim Walker at Redlands High School, Miguel Olmedo at Redlands High School. We've got a guy on our staff right now, Ron Roberts. A guy at Texas Tech, Brian Norwood. These are guys that there is a certain calmness to them. They're real strong people, and that strength had nothing to do with the transparency and the honesty that they shared. To me that was kind of eye opening. I'd always really struggled with, why would people care about me, they've got enough going on. To see that really strong guys can be vulnerable and communicate in those times, that is a strength. That was a learning process for me. I think my growth spiritually helped with that. Seeing it modeled by people that I worked with and coached with was just as strong as reading the Bible and the Bible studies that ensued during that time.
FootballScoop: Awkwardly switching gears here, do you think the experience of coaching alongside that LSU offense last year changed how you would have approached constructing your offense as a head coach than you would have if you'd become a head coach before last year?
Aranda: Yes. When I look at last year's offense, you're talking about great skill. Guys that really, to be taken away, had to be doubled. You can't double five of them. Right away there's a math problem, and then you talk about a quarterback that can be an offensive coordinator on the grass and take what a defense is doing, know the reasons why a certain play was called. You give a lot of credit to the offensive staff -- Steve Ensminger, Joe Brady, all those guys. But I think there were a lot of times where Joe Burrow, it became him. He was seeing that stuff just as fast. You're talking about a real dangerous weapon that molded to whatever the weakness of the defense is.
To specifically answer your question was when I say yes, it's how strong that attack was. I feel it now when I talk to some folks at a clinic, if a defense is in this coverage or in this front and something's called or checked to that is the perfect play versus that front or that coverage, it can be bad. I think where I had changed from last year to this year was, prior to last year I would have shook my head and acknowledged, "Yeah, man. That's bad. But we'll get to the next play and we'll get them. We'll make adjustments and we'll be all right." After going through last year it's like, "No, man. That's a touchdown. You just gave up a touchdown." You know what I mean? That's the difference. If they know what you're in, that's a touchdown. You're down six points now. That's the pressure they put on people.
FootballScoop: In recruiting, the Briles and Rhule staffs did pretty much all of their shopping in Texas, as most Texas schools do. Do you see yourself following that model or maybe branching out into the Southeast a little bit?
Aranda: Per your first question, you're going to want the physical skills to be measured. Verified track times, verified camp times. There is a physical ability that has to meet some standard to be a Division I athlete. There is some form of elite athleticism to you. That's probably highlighted now more than ever just because we don't have spring recruiting where we can go out and see so-and-so. We're going off of numbers and camp film and coaches that have been at these camps and worked with these kids, that type of thing.
The other side of it, though, is probably more important. The idea of building a team, of recruiting character. Raw ability is there, but the character is the centerpiece. That is what makes the core of your team, so you get as many of those guys as you can on campus and you develop that skill in them and hone it and get them pointed in the right direction. That would be a developmental approach. There's some teams that are developmental teams, there's some that are not.
As far as the character approach, No. 1 would be competitive spirit. If he's a skill player, you want to look at overtime games, 2-point plays, 2-minute drives, third downs. Is the ball in his hand? Why not, if it's not? No. 2 would be toughness. There's a mental and a physical part to that. No. 3 would be leadership. Does he play other sports, is he a leader in those sports? Is he a leader off the field as well as on the field? Intelligence, on the grass and off the grass as well. Is there savviness on the field? Is there an ability to excel in the classroom? Adaptability would be the fifth part. If things break down, can he excel? Or is he so structured that when things break down, he breaks down. I think the ability to win translates into those five things and they represent the core of your team.
I've been on some good teams -- Wisconsin comes to mind quickly as a team that knows clearly who they are and what they're about and what they're not, just as importantly. Baylor, what Coach Rhule has established here, is along those lines. There's a certain type of student athlete that is a fit at Baylor and we're on the hunt for them.